Placebo Nocebo: Pills of belief

In the world of placebos and nocebos, what you believe in will surely be manifested

Placebo Nacebo pills concept

Today, medicine acknowledges the power of the mind over the body to produce disease. This group of diseases are called psycho-somatic and include tension headaches, hyperacidity, hypertension, palpitation, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and chronic fatigue. Now, if the mind is capable of producing a disease, it is very likely that it is also capable of reversing a disease given the right stimulus and circumstances. Placebos and nocebos work on this principle.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon where your symptoms can be reduced or got rid of, by an otherwise ineffective treatment, because you believe or expect that the treatment will work. Placebos are usually inert substances [like sugar or chalk] which by themselves have no medicinal action on the human body. But if your doctor tells you that these are real and effective medicines, which can cure you of your disease, and if you truly believe this, then they may actually work for you. This phenomenon cannot be explained on scientific terms, because the substance being administered is chemically inert and incapable of producing any effects. Such a substance, when given to others, does not produce the same effect, unlike a medicine such as aspirin or paracetamol, which will uniformly reduce fever and pain in anyone it is given to.

It has been postulated that when a person believes strongly that he will be healed by something, his own subconscious mind comes into action and cures him of the disease. Another explanation frequently given for a placebo effect is that the patient’s symptoms were psychological to start with, that the patient did not have any real disease as such, and hence when the patient was satisfied that he was getting treatment, he improved.

The commonest example for the nocebo effect is when a person bitten by a non-poisonous snake dies, because he believed the snake was poisonous

A nocebo, on the other hand, is again an inactive substance, which is not supposed to produce any effects or side effects. But again, due to the patients’ mindset or belief, even this inert substance when administered causes a lot of unwanted side effects. This effect too cannot be explained scientifically or duplicated. But because the patient is under the false belief that the substance being administered is some harmful chemical, his subconscious mind is activated and forces the body systems to react and produce symptoms. The commonest example for the nocebo effect is when a person bitten by a non-poisonous snake dies, because he believed the snake was poisonous. Technically, the snake has no venom and the bitten person should not die, but due to his belief in general that snake bites are poisonous and lethal, his body goes into a severe shock like response and he dies.

A remedy for anxious patients

The placebo effect is a handy tool for a doctor, when dealing with a hypochondriac patient. Every once in a while, doctors encounter patients who are attention seeking and though they do not have any real sickness, they imagine themselves to be sick. Such individuals often hop from one clinic to another, and do not accept the diagnosis that there nothing is wrong with them. They even go to the extent of subjecting themselves to expensive and extensive medical tests, and are often unhappy when told by the doctors that all their reports are normal. In such cases, many experienced doctors resort to giving such patients some harmless pills, usually sugar pills, and tell them that they will be fine when they finish the course. The patients are happy that their illness has been acknowledged. They willingly take the medicine, and since they believe that they are sick, they also equally willingly believe that they will be cured. And surprisingly, their symptoms do disappear with a placebo treatment.

Both placebos and nocebos ultimately produce their desirable or undesirable effects solely because the patient believes that they will. For instance, many have a mindset that allopathic drugs, mainly antibiotics, are harmful and that they must be avoided at all costs. If, by chance, such a person was forced to take these medicines for an illness, it is likely that due to his strong beliefs and conditioning, he will react with many side effects. If any patient is exhibiting side effects which are not normally known with a drug, a doctor could suspect a nocebo effect and must have a detailed discussion with the patient on his belief systems.

Spontaneous cures

Many magical healings and cures are reported to occur all over the world, either due to faith in a deity or due to a person who is a healer. In all these cases, it is likely that the healing happened because the person believed that he will be cured. The brain is connected to each and every cell and organ of the body with nerves and hormones. Once a particular belief or faith becomes imprinted on the mind, it can act through these nerves and hormones and produce the necessary effects. Placebos and nocebos work in the same way. Since placebos and nocebos work because of complete belief and faith, once the person being administered these substances knows that these are inert things, it is highly unlikely that they will produce any effect. The value of a placebo remains only as long as the patient does not know what it is, and actually believes the doctor and the substance to be true and powerful enough to cure him. The biggest advantage of the placebo in medicine is that, since they are inert substances, and are usually inexpensive and harmless, they can be used to cure a whole lot of diseases which originate in a person’s psyche. If the doctor is experienced and if the patient has 100 per cent faith in the doctor, this relationship can be positively exploited by the doctor to cure the patient using placebos.

Every doctor who has been practising for a few years will have a story to tell about the placebo and nocebo effect

There are many interesting examples of both the placebo and the nocebo effect in the history of medicine. Every doctor who has been practising for a few years will have a story to tell. When it was first discovered that germs are the cause of infections, many doctors did not believe this theory. It is reported that at a scientific gathering early in the nineteenth century, where it was being proposed that germs caused infections, the speaker had brought with him a glass of water contaminated with cholera germs. One doctor, who did not believe that germs existed, drank the entire glass of water. As a result of his strong belief, he never got cholera, although the water was filled with the germs. In another instance, a person was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was at an early stage, and with proper chemotherapy, he was cured. His doctors told him that he was lucky and that he need not worry, as his disease had been eradicated. But he did not believe them, as he always knew that cancer is a fatal disease. He continued with the belief that the disease would spread and eventually kill him. Six months later, he died. When the doctors did an autopsy of his body, they did not find a single cancerous cell, or any other disease that could account for his death. He had died because he believed he would die. These examples give a clear idea how placebos and nocebos work in human beings.

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Experts who practise mind-body medicine firmly believe that all diseases start in the mind. When the mind is in disorder, with the help of the nervous and endocrine system, it transfers this disorder to the cells and tissues of the body, thereby producing disease. All mind body healing works like a placebo, by changing our beliefs and by raising our faith in ourselves and in the ability of our subconscious mind to cure itself and the body. If you believe something will benefit you, it will. If you believe something will harm you, it will and it does.


A version of this article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing

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